Amid mergers, parishes retool services for poor
Sometimes a church merger can be a blessing in disguise.
When Mater Christi parish in Albany was created last year from the joining of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena parishes, the old St. Teresa food pantry picked up about 65 new volunteers - adding to a long list of active parishioners in about seven social ministries.
"If it weren't for our volunteers, we wouldn't have a program," said Ellen Boyer, director of outreach and Christian service at Mater Christi. The 25-year-old pantry started at the old St. Teresa rectory, later moving to a parish-owned house on West Erie Street.
It now covers clients from a 10-mile radius. "We're really fortunate," Mrs. Boyer stated.
When churches close as a result of the diocesan Called to be Church consolidations, outreach directors often consider what will happen to the poor, the elderly, the hospitalized or the homebound the parish served through soup kitchens, food pantries, thrift shops and other ministries.
Parish staff often work to retain the facility, either by remaining in the same location or by merging services with another facility at another site. Other times, however, a program's organizers face closure and are forced to recommend other community services to clients.
However, some parishes that merge join their social service efforts to yield a larger operation.
When Our Lady of Mercy parish in Colonie and St. Francis de Sales in Loudonville merged to form Christ Our Light parish in Loudonville, the pair also decided to merge their food pantries, which each served more than 30 families each month.
Now, the surviving pantry at the former Our Lady of Mercy serves about 80 families per month.
"There's a need for the families to have someplace to get sustenance," said Harry Nopper, pantry manager.
In Troy, Catholic Charities hopes to save the food pantry in the rectory of St. Patrick's Church, which is scheduled to close in June.
According to Shannon Kelly of diocesan Catholic Charities, the idea is to merge the pantry with Catholic Charities' Sunny-side Center pantry a few blocks north, thus merging volunteers and support and expanding hours. Thousands of families have been served at St. Patrick's.
At other programs, such as that of St. Mary's Church in Troy, the future remains uncertain. The parish is scheduled to close this summer. At its soup kitchen and food pantry, volunteers serve hot dinners, soup and sandwiches to between 30 and 50 people a month - as well as dole out two or three bags of groceries to about 40 families a month.
Sam Marro, pastoral associate for administration at St. Mary's, has been meeting with diocesan and Catholic Charities officials on possible solutions.
"I don't know what's going to happen to all that stuff because there's nowhere to do it," said Mr. Marro.
Alternatives include sending soup kitchen clients to a Protestant church or the YWCA, and food pantry clients to the Roarke Center in Troy, located next to St. Anthony of Padua Church.
In many instances, consolidations have led to innovative collaborations among parishes and, sometimes, other Christian groups.
The soup kitchen started at the former St. Casimir's Church in Amsterdam, which closed last year, moved to St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Volunteers continue to serve between 130 and 180 meals a week.
A soup kitchen and a thrift shop serve hundreds of clients monthly at the former St. Patrick's School in Albany. St. Patrick's, St. Casimir's and Our Lady of Angels had merged to form Holy Family parish in 2006. The kitchen management has changed hands several times.
The former Sacred Heart/St. Columba in Schenectady rents out the basement of the old church from the current tenant, Higher Ground Protestant Church, to continue its 25-year-old food pantry. Volunteers deliver supplemental food to about 240 elderly people throughout Schenectady County every month. The Christian Service Committee largely supports them financially.
Sister Rosemary Endres, CSJ, pantry director, said it was possible the pantry would have to move when the church closed in 2008, but they lucked out.
"To pick up and move everything," Sister Rosemary said, "would have been horrendous, really."